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The Effects of Childhood Trauma on Addiction Recovery

The Effects of Childhood Trauma on Addiction Recovery

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, you’ve probably heard about the fact that trauma and a difficult upbringing can negatively impact your life including your approach to drugs and alcohol. For many of us, that can initially sound like a death sentence, “because of what I experienced, I can never get clean and sober”. That black and white approach is, of course, wrong. Anyone can recover from a substance use disorder and with the right help, you can also move on and recover from much of the impacts of trauma. However, it is true that childhood trauma does greatly impact your brain, your development, and your vulnerability to substance use disorder. That also means it will go on to impact your ability to recover from addiction when you choose to go to recovery.

This article will go into details on what that should mean for you, as well as some things to bring up with your therapist and counselors as you move through treatment.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Most of what we know about childhood trauma impacting addiction and addiction recovery comes from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, conducted over a 20-year span and publishing data on more than 17,000 patients in 1995. Today, that study has been expanded on, followed up with further studies, and the initial patients have mostly continued to add data over the course of their lives. The study detailed that an adverse experience or trauma before the age of 16 would more negatively impact future health and development than a similar trauma at a later age. This was tracked to the developing brain and the impact of stress and trauma on that development. It was shown that children experiencing one or more adverse experiences were more than 50% likely develop a mental health or behavioral health disorder such as a substance use disorder as an adult.

Adverse Childhood Experiences include:

  • Car accidents
  • Family splits such as divorce
  • Death in the family
  • Child abuse
  • Domestic violence against other family members
  • Bullying
  • Illness/injuries
  • Mental health disorders
  • Family members having mental health disorders

Adverse Childhood Experiences are also common. 64% of Americans qualify as having one. 17% of Americans qualify as having 4 or more. Those traumas go on to have significant impacts on the lives of the people involved, with an estimated 21 million cases of depression directly linked to adverse childhood experiences since the study began.

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Childhood Trauma Impacts Substance Use Disorder

Experiencing a childhood trauma or an adverse childhood experience greatly impacts your likelihood of having a substance use disorder. That’s so much the case that individuals with 1 or more adverse childhood experiences have a 50% chance of having a behavioral or mental health disorder as an adult. In addition, mental health disorders also greatly increase your risk of substance use disorder. In fact, 23.1 percent of the U.S. population, or 59.3 million Americans have a mental health disorder. 8.4% of the population, or 21.5 million Americans, have both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder.

In fact, of the 48.7 million Americans with a substance use disorder, only 25 million did not also have a co-occurring mental health disorder.

The overlap between having a childhood trauma and having a substance use disorder, or having a mental health disorder, is significant. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t recover.

child suffering from trauma

How Does Childhood Trauma Impact Recovery from Addiction?

Childhood trauma impacts your development and your brain in multiple ways. For example:

  • Increased Sensation Seeking – Children who experience high peaks of stress and cortisol at an early age are less likely to learn to self-soothe or to manage emotions in a healthy way. Instead, they often increasingly rely on sensation seeking which turns into habits like drinking, drug use, gambling, sex, speeding, and other “easy” ways to feel good.
  • Poor Coping Mechanisms – Persons who grow up in dysfunctional households rarely learn the skills to manage emotions and stress. This means they are more likely to copy their parents and to use binges on sugar, drugs, or alcohol to release stress rather than coping with things in a healthy way. Learning healthy coping mechanisms must be a key priority in recovery.
  • Risk-Taking – Persons with childhood trauma are more likely to indulge in high-risk high-reward activities and to be poor judges of risk. E.g., I can handle just once. I won’t be arrested. This is about brain development and requires significant behavioral therapy to help combat.
  • Mental Instability – Instability during childhood means you’re likely to experience mental instability which can mean mood swings, anger, outbursts, fits of depression, and other ups and downs. This requires behavioral and trauma therapy to move past. However, in recovery, it means that you don’t have the resource of mental stability to lean on, which means you need extra support during treatment. For example, having support of a counselor or a sober home after therapy can be very impactful if you’re prone to spiraling into depression or to have mood swings.
  • Inability to Form Meaningful or Lasting Relationships and Bonds – Growing up in a dysfunctional family often means you don’t have a clear picture of what healthy relationships look like. You might also want to look into relationship and family therapy to help improve those bonds and your ability to build and sustain healthy  relationships, although this might be delivered as part of addiction treatment and recovery or after it.
  • Mental Health Disorders – If you’ve experienced a childhood trauma, you’re more than 50% more likely to have problems with mental health disorders. These co-occurring disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and others, can greatly complicate recovery and treatment. For many, that means you’ll need a dual diagnosis treatment track in order to stay in recovery. Otherwise, the symptoms of your mental health disorder can conflict with recovery, which means you’ll be more likely to relapse and less able to learn from therapy and treatment. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to look into diagnosis as part of your addiction treatment if you don’t’ have a diagnosis and to look directly into dual diagnosis treatment if you do.

More than 60% of Americans have experienced something that counts as a childhood trauma. That trauma then goes on to increase your risks of mental health disorders, physical illness, behavioral health disorder such as addiction, and your ability to cope and deal with stress over your life. That also, naturally, means you’ll have a harder time as you move into addiction treatment and recovery. However, vulnerability to substance abuse does not mean you’re stuck with being an addict. Instead, it means you need extra tools, extra support, and a trauma-informed approach to therapy and treatment so you get the tools you need to recover from addiction – and then to move past the trauma that shaped the way you are now.

Eventually, that means having a discussion with your doctor, matching treatment to your mental health needs, and ensuring that your addiction recovery supports your mental health and the treatment you need.

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Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken in place of medical advice. Before making any decisions regarding your health, please consult your doctor. The staff at Stairway Resource Center develops a custom treatment plan for each of our patients. Specific medical advice will be provided to our patients by our professional providers while in our care.